South Africa has a tennis pedigree to be proud of. History books and trophies are littered with the names of players from bygone eras from this country. But the last decade had been terribly unkind to the local followers of this regal game, with a talent pool as barren as the Kalahari.
Two of my earliest sporting memories remain vividly, and permanently, etched in my adolescent memory. The first decided my Premier League football allegiance, when the team in red faced-off against their Liverpudlian cousins in blue, in the 1986 FA Cup final. That chance encounter with the television has now accounted for over 20 years of frustration, as my team of Merseysiders flatter to deceive each Premier League season, causing me to deflect the constant taunts from my United-supporting friends.
The second defining early sporting recollection was visually consuming the mesmerising green grass of Wimbledon, as Stefan Edberg served and volleyed past Boom-Boom Becker in the final of 1988 All England Lawn Tennis Championships. Tight white tennis shorts with a shirt that appeared to have been side-winded by cans of mutli-coloured paint on the way to the courts of SW19, cool-as-ice Edberg had gained a new fan. A scrawny little Greek boy, swishing an imaginary overhead smash in front of the TV, in a suburban Port Elizabeth home. Tennis would become my first love, and would go on to break my heart many times.
Only one aspect of my love affair with tennis has hurt more than the day I discovered Ladbrokes offered odds on tennis matches. The sorry state of South African tennis. Even more frustrating than supporting Liverpool in a post-Kevin Keagan era, was having to endure the torment of what South Africa would offer as its finest on the tennis court.
Not since the days of the enigma-wrapped-in-mad-hatter that was Wayne Ferreira, has South African tennis had a player that could contest with the best of them, on the international stage. A player whose matches regularly offered up more drama than a daytime soapie, Ferreria was too many times his own worst enemy as the Johannesburg-born pro struggled to fulfil the potential of someone blessed with an inordinate amount of natural ability.
Mind you, a look back at some his accomplishments will reveal a surprisingly successful list of accomplishments that included nigh-on $10 million in prize money, 11 career titles (two of which were Masters series) and a 6-7 head-to-head record against one of the greatest of all time, Pete Sampras.
Before Ferreira flew the flag of South African tennis, the country had no shortage of achievers on the tennis circuit. Kevin Curren famously lost the 1985 Wimbledon final to a teenaged Boris Becker, and Johan Kriek won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 1981/2. And in the days of black and white TV, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan captured each of Grand Slam doubles titles along with the country’s only Davis Cup triumph that came in 1974.
So with a production line of such talented players, how is it that South African tennis is in such state of poo?
While apartheid certainly robbed all sporting codes of the necessary international exposure and opposition required to compete at the highest level, tennis since our 1992 readmission to world stage has fared rather poorly. As an individual sport, tennis should be compared against golf and swimming rather than the team sports of rugby and cricket. Whereas our golfers and swimmers have accumulated umpteen major trophies and Olympic medals, our tennis achievements have been limited to scattered ATP tour victories and varied success on the doubles courts.
Admirable as Kevin Anderson and Wesley Moodie’s achievements are, we deserve to be nation with Top Ten tennis players rather than crow about a lone soldier ranked in the Top 50.
I’ve often wondered how in a country of sunshine and tennis courts, we cannot reproduce our golfing achievements in tennis. Is it because golfers get to practice their trade against international quality “opponents” from an early age, being on the world class golf courses that populate our cities, and tennis lacks the same quality of rivals required to further a player’s skill set? I’m not certain of the reason, but the disparaging gap between the two sporting codes is quite noticeable.
Another potential cause is the drain of the tennis talent pool by more popular sporting codes of football, cricket and rugby. Although potentially valid and highly likely, running a similar argument through a Serbian set of parameters will yield a very different result to that argument. Serbian tennis is experiencing an all time high, with world number one Novak Djokovic set to complete the most successful season in tennis history, and Janko Tipsaraveic and Viktor Troicki both inside the Top 20.
A country with just over seven million people, tennis competes with a fairly successful football team (that actually qualified for the World Cup) and a hugely successful basketball team for talented sportsmen. Coupled with the fact that facilities had to be rebuilt from scratch, the widespread success of Serbia on any sporting playground is mind-boggling.
So how do we solve this little conundrum that is SA tennis? Well, at iMaverick we’re not afraid to dream big, and herewith follows our grand-scale solution to the country, and continent’s tennis problem.
South Africa enjoys an important administrative relationship with the governing body of tennis, as our national carrier, South African Airways, currently has the naming rights sponsorship of the men’s ATP tour until 2012, a privilege that has cost the airline almost $40 million over six years. Pretoria-born, Etienne de Villiers, was the director in charge of the ATP from 2005-2009 (although the tenure ended somewhat acrimoniously with senior players calling for his replacement.) Yet it is these relationships that will need to be harnessed in order to acquire the funding to build the A-grade facilities required, to rekindle the interest and catalyse the rebirth of African tennis.
South Africa needs a tennis academy to rival that of the great European and American schools that churn out great players by the dozens each year. An academy with a 20,000-seater stadium and surrounding courts that can double as the venue for the once-proud SA Tennis Open, is what is required. And nothing less. An institution where attendees can be schooled in craft of tennis, day-in and day-out, coupled with academic lessons, is the only way tennis on the continent can prosper to the level of other developed nations. Young able-bodied players need to eat, sleep and breathe tennis in order to compete at the highest levels, and one-day count a home-grown Roger Federer amongst our ranks.
As an African wide initiative, the academy should be supported and funded by the countries from across the continent, where aspiring South African, Nigerian or Ghanaian tennis players of a young age can be tutored under the guidance of ex-professional players and professional coaches.
A notion as grand as this does not come cheap, which is why the major economic players of the continent need to be involved, and the ATP tour itself needs to lobbied for an investment in Africa. As a governing body whose duty it is to promote the game around the world, the petty efforts on the continent are a slap in the face of what could have, and should have already transpired in the sport.
What is needed is a stadium capable of hosting an African Grand Slam tournament that doubles as the continent’s premier academy. In an already packed tennis calendar, coupled with defying tradition by “building” a new Grand Slam from scratch, it will require a gargantuan effort. The South African Open Grand Slam Championship – it certainly has nice, lofty ring to it – that will have traditionalists choking on their cucumber sandwiches. But if every other major sporting code has had its African day in the sun, why can’t tennis? DM
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.
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